Student News

Cultivating Future Innovators in Nepal, Part 2

Jae Hyuk Song – September 5, 2018

Checking for the last time that I had packed all the required components of the drone I had design previously, I zipped up my bag and stepped out the door. Taking a deep breath, I thought back to what I had accomplished so far: making a quadcopter from scratch, overcoming many unexpected difficulties, going through three different prototypes in order to optimize the learning experience, and designing a curriculum that elementary school students could learn while enjoying the class. I could only hope that it was enough to educate and inspire the students in Nepal to continue pursuing drone engineering after my class.

The flight was six and a half hours, which I spent reviewing the material. A few days ago, I had printed out several copies of a presentation that I had made for both classes. The planned class time was two hours, the first hour filled with basic information about drones and activities to understand the physics of flight, and the second hour consisting of time to make a micro drone as a class and fly it together. Since the students in the school I was scheduled to visit didn’t speak English, a translator from ADRF would be teaching the class with me, so I made my slides mostly from pictures and with minimal words.

Arriving in Nepal, I was greeted by several volunteers from ADRF: Tamang Prince, Prakash Dhamala, and Ji-won Hwang. Dhamala was my translator, Tamang was my guide in Bhumimata, and Ji-won was my guide in Kathmandu. We talked about a variety of subjects during dinner, which was a traditional Nepalese dinner, though they were mostly related to drones and the current situation in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. Tamang mentioned to me that Dr. Mahabir Pun, a very famous engineer in Nepal who received the Magsaysay Award, was also working on developing drones as a commercial product, and I asked him if there was any way to contact Dr. Pun. A bit of research brought up that Dr. Pun had founded and was leading the Nepal Innovation Center (NIC), so I sent an email to Dr. Pun asking if it was possible set up a meeting, carbon copying Dhamala, Tamal, and Ji-won. Doubting that he would respond, we checked into our hotel in Kathmandu and reviewed the materials I had brought. Dhamala and I went through the papers a few times more in order to come up with a sufficient translation, then bid each other good night. Although I had taught several robotics classes before, it was a restless night of worrying and shifting around in my bed.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we drove to the mountainside village of Bhumimata, where Tamang was from. The roads in Kathmandu were somewhat unpaved, with bumps and cracks everywhere along the road. Cars roamed everywhere, the center line barely visible and unkept to. All types and brands of motorcycles weaved in between cars and filled the streets. It felt like chaos at first, but after a while, I could sense that there seemed to be an unspoken rule that prevented most accidents and crashes. The road conditions got gradually worse as we neared the edge of Kathmandu, the passengers in the four-wheel drive feeling every jolt from rocks below.

Within two hours, we arrived at the bottom of the mountain where Bhumimata was located. There was no official road up to the village, so we followed a rocky trail big enough to fit a small car. Thankfully, our car was narrow and powerful enough to crawl over the obstacles in our way. Although the village was barely one kilometer away from the base, it took us another hour to get there. The roads were unlike anything I had experienced, rocking the car in every direction, seemingly wanting me to bump my head on every side of the car. When we were about three quarters way up, we saw a medium-sized blue pickup truck in front of us. Luckily, it was also heading up (I don’t want to think what we would have done if it was coming down), with a tent covering up the storage part. We kept our distance to be safe, but when the truck was in view, I realized that the school students were riding in the back, holding on to the truck as it shook violently. Tamal said that the pickup truck was their only method of transportation up and down the mountain, used to take students to their homes once a week and to deliver the villagers to a nearby town for supplies once a month. If the truck was unavailable, they had to walk for three days to get to the next town.

After a while, we arrived at the first sign of a town: Tamal’s incomplete house. There, we stopped and rested for a bit, taking time so I could teach Tamal and Dhamala how to fly drones. Because Kathmandu’s drone security was too tight, it was only at Bhumimata that I could test the DJI Spark in Nepal’s thin atmosphere. Despite my worries, the drone flew well, stabilizing well in the wind and detecting surrounding trees. Tamal told me that his original house had been demolished by the 2015 earthquake and his family was currently living in a temporary shelter. They had started building their new buildings three months after the earthquake struck, and have been building ever since. Although the hardest part of the construction was over, he said, supplies were hard to come by, hindering the building’s completion. They had just installed the house’s electric grid, so they were gradually moving their activities to the incomplete house. When asked when the building would be completed, Tamal replied that he wasn’t sure, hopefully in another year or two. He quietly added that if the next earthquake was as disastrous as the previous one, he wasn’t sure if this building could withstand it.

Soon, it was time to start the class, so we headed over to Shree Bhumimata Secondary School. The school was very small, with long rectangular buildings, one of which was newly built. I first met with the principal of the school, explaining to him the purpose of my class and asking for his permission to teach one of his classes. He told me that he was grateful to have such a unique opportunity for his school, and would like me to teach all of the older students. We unpacked in the new building, getting materials ready and charging the batteries, and waited for the students to finish their morning classes. For the final time, Dhamala and I reviewed the class handouts, and before I felt I was ready, the student came flooding the classroom.

After an introduction and an icebreaker, I began by discussing the 2015 Nepal earthquake of Gorkha. As one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, the Gorkha earthquake was deadly in itself, but the aftermath of the earthquake was even more fatal. It had caused landslides and avalanches, blocking countless roads and rendering rural mountainside villages inaccessible. First aid and supplies couldn’t get to these villages in time, creating long-lasting damage. I went on to explain that because these natural disasters mainly affected the land, an alternate method must be used: transportation by air. I had incorporated a paper airplane-making activity, through which the students could learn why airplanes were not the best method to use in times of need, and why drones were superior in these situations. During a paper airplane throwing competition, we shared a big laugh when the paper airplane that I had made plopped straight on the ground as soon as it had left my hand. Transitioning to drones, the students learned the different types and uses of drones, and the physics behind quadcopter flights. They were now ready to make a drone themselves.

As I prepared to hand out the drone parts to each group, the students took a little break. I couldn’t believe how fast time had gone; it was already an hour into my class, although it felt like twenty minutes. I felt as excited as the students were to make the drone, as if adrenaline was pumping through my body. The next hour and a half were more exhilarating. The class divided into four groups, each group working on a motor controller. I was all over the place, constantly moving back and forth between groups to answer questions and to provide the necessary advice or explanation for each component. It seemed at first that the students were struggling to understand the diagram I had drawn out of Fritzing, but after a while, there was a magical moment when they began to see the big picture and knew what to do. From then on, I was able to watch proudly as they assembled the motor controllers from scratch and watch in excitement as they tested their motors. Even though many of the groups failed on their first try, they didn’t seem to be disappointed; instead, they went on to compare the diagram to their product to find the error.

Suddenly, it was all over. All four groups had finished their motor controllers and were gleefully using them as fans in the hot weather. Gathering all four of the groups to one large table, I took out the TinyWhoop micro drone frame. When each group had finished connecting their motors to the frame, I took a moment to explain how a combination of changes in motor speeds results in a change in roll, pitch, or yaw. Then we proved the theories by testing them with the drone we had made, students taking turns to control each motor.

I couldn’t believe my first class was done. It had all gone by so quickly. With the ADRF volunteers, I handed out plates of chicken curry and rice to the students for lunch. When all the students had received their plates, I sat down with the staff and teachers in order to explain how to fly the DJI Spark, which I would be donating to the village. Tamal and Dhamala took some time watching me fly the drone above the rooftops of the school to get a sense of the flight parameters.

After lunch, we gathered all the students once again in the rectangular classroom and revealed the mini drones that I had been charging in the corner of the room. “Oooh”s and “Ahhh”s could be heard around the room as I flew one as a test. I had brought 5 drones to donate to the school, so students could practice flying drones. This would allow them to earn a license in drone flying, ultimately helping them build a better resume and job application in the future. Students took turns flying each drone, first with them only controlling the altitude and yaw, then taking control of pitch and roll as well. Some students seemed scared of the little drone, letting go of the controller as soon as the drone drifted close to them, but others seemed curious and excited to be controlling the drone, unfazed even if they crashed on the first try and practicing until they could execute basic movements. Another hour flew by as we laughed as drone after drone swerved into a wall, watched in awe as a student caught on faster than others and flew the drone expertly, and clapped when a student struggling finally flew her drone in a full circle around the room and landed it perfectly. When everyone was satisfied with their flying skills, I thanked the class for being such a concentrated and excited class, and we said farewell.

Walking out the front gate of Shree Bhumimata Secondary School, I felt exhausted but proud. These students had done much better than I had hoped, and had expelled all doubts from my mind. They required me to maintain full concentration throughout the entire three-hour period, causing my brain to work tirelessly, but I knew that all the effort I had put in was worth it. As we approached our car, I was able to see the rest of the village scattered across the mountainside. Seeing that many of the houses were still damaged, I asked Tamal if he could take me to a nearby home so I could experience firsthand the lasting impact of the 2015 earthquake. Tamal took me to his cousin’s house, which was a ten-minute walk away along a hazardous road. There, I met his cousin, who was also named Prince. He invited us into his house and began to tell me his story:

Before the earthquake, Prince lived with his father, his mother, and his little brother in two small mud houses on the edge of the mountain. The houses were built by his father a long time ago, withstanding everything nature had thrown at them. One of the houses was the kitchen, and the other was the shelter where the four of them slept. One road, the one we had just walked along, connected them to the main village, where the school was located. On the day of the earthquake, he was home along with the rest of his family because of heavy rainfall. Since the kitchen was located on higher ground, the family was huddled inside, wishing for the rain to stop. It had been raining for days and they were already low on supplies, but the road conditions made it too risky to venture outside. It was then that the earthquake struck. As the ground started to tremble, Prince’s father shouted for everyone to go outside. Even though he knew the rocky mountainside that had turned muddy and slippery was fatal, staying in the mud house, which had been weakened from heavy rain, would be certain death if the house collapsed. They had to head to the nearby school (Shree Bhumimata Secondary School), where the sturdier buildings could provide better shelter. Ordering his children to wait, he rushed into the kitchen to bring emergency food supplies, while Prince’s mother hurriedly went to bring extra clothes and medical supplies in the other house. Frantically grabbing as much as he could, he rushed out and shouted at his wife to hurry. The tremors turned into violent jerks, then turned land into turbulent sea as the main earthquake passed by them. He watched helplessly as the earthquake shook apart the walls of the house in which his wife was in, causing the heavy mud roof to collapse inward, taking his wife down with it. But he still had his children to bring to safety, and he was forced to leave her to get them to the school.

For five more days, the three of them were forced to stay in the school along with many other villagers because of the rain. They ran out of food on the third day, clean water on the fourth, and were not able to receive any supplies. They were without electricity for fifteen days and their only method of knowing what was going on outside of town was two small radios, both of which ran out of battery before the week went by. Most buildings, including their storage facilities, were built without foundation and often with dried mud or bricks, causing many of them to collapse. The school closed down for three months in order to accommodate the people without shelter. Many people, along with Prince’s mother, died during the earthquake, and even more were injured, many of whom were not able to get medical attention until a full month after the earthquake. Many of the roads in to and out of Bhumimata were blocked, so Prince and many of the other villagers risked their lives clearing out old roads or making new ones.

Eventually, Prince said, the village recovered, but it has never healed completely. The earthquake had created gaping holes in their lives, with the death of his mother and irreparable damage to the village. The kitchen still stands, and they replaced their living place with a small shack made from large metal sheets. They plan to build a more reliable structure in the future, but they lack the resource to do so. To the question “What was the biggest problem during the 2015 earthquake?”, Prince answered that it was the lack of shelter and communication. After such major disasters, a lot of people had lost their homes and needed a place to stay. The school had been overcrowded but it was still much safer than staying outside in harsh weather. Without communication with the outside world, they were not able to ask for supplies nor ask for medical aid when they most needed it. They were still recovering, and don’t know when it would be back to “normal”.

After showing us around where they lived, Prince and his family bid us farewell. We gave them a bag full of a mixture of emergency supplies and goods that they could not afford. Thanking Prince for letting us into his house and recollecting his painful story, we headed back towards our vehicle.

As we walked back past the front of the school, Dhamala checked his email and seemed surprised. “Babu, check your email!” (They called me babu, which means ‘little brother’). I took out my phone to see what had surprised Dhamala so much, and my inbox took me by surprise as well. Dr. Mahabir Pun had replied to my email! He wrote back saying that he was interested in what I was doing in Nepal and had sent the email of his chief engineer so I could set up a meeting with him. He added that although he would like to attend the meeting himself, he was planned to have eye surgery the following day and was unlikely to recover in time. I quickly replied that I was grateful for his response and a meeting with his chief engineer would be more than enough. Before we arrived back at the hotel, I had secured a meeting with Mr. Saroj Karki, the chief electrical engineer at NIC.

That night my thoughts were full of mixed feelings. On one hand, I was feeling amazed at the thought of getting to meet the top engineers of Nepal the next day; on the other, I was solemn from the stories I had heard from Prince and his family. I felt that I needed to have a clearer goal for what can really help Nepal. It was obvious to me that drone would be crucial to Nepal’s future. Although Nepal isn’t a very large country, most of it consists of mountains; therefore, because of the difficulty of terrain, a network or swarm of drones would be needed for efficiency. These drones would have to be autonomous, capable of avoiding unexpected obstacles and recharging by themselves at a local drone station. They would collect information on weather, locations of people, road conditions, and the state of buildings. The drone would have to recognize when a person is in danger, perhaps by recognizing certain hand or body signals that the person is showing. Each drone should be able to withstand light rain and moderate wind, with a flight radius of around ten to fifteen kilometers. During or after natural disasters such as earthquakes, they needed a payload weight of minimum five kilograms. I had no clue as to how this drone was possible, but I hoped that this vision could provide a baseline platform for a better future.